25 February 1999
For immediate release
Frank Field hailed his work as a piece of research "which should change the course of debate in Britain." Now Alan Buckingham, the researcher in question, is ready to get the debate underway.
Mr Buckingham, who is based at Sussex University, has been scrutinising the concept of 'the underclass' for four years. Not only has he found empirical evidence which overturns the concept of a three-tier class system, he has also concluded from his data that "We have a passive, retreatist underclass - a group of people who have just given up." Looking to the American model of social welfare as an inspiration for the UK, Alan Buckingham believes that "We need to have more pro-active policies. Not working should not be an option any more."
For his ESRC-funded research, Mr Buckingham used one of the most exhaustive sociological resources available in the country; a national dataset with 17,500 subjects - all of the people born in the UK in one week of 1958. By using such an encyclopaedic resource, Alan Buckingham has been able to, as he says, "Cut through the rhetoric and determine the truth."
Using the index of 'chronic worklessness' as a primary criteria, Mr Buckingham discovered that around 5.5% of the sample could be considered to be members of the underclass - meaning that they had spent a minimum of 15% of their working lives out of a job and dependent on benefits. The group is split evenly between women and men. However, it is crucial that, of that 5.5%, only 1% were of ethnic origin. This proves that the concept of an underclass in the UK is very different to that in the USA, where, according to Mr Buckingham, "The word 'underclass' is used as a synonym for dispossessed black people."
Many sociologists have argued that even though there is a statistical group which might share the characteristic of long term unemployment, the individuals who make up that 5.5% have very little else in common which could identify them as a distinct 'class'. Alan Buckingham's research refutes this argument The chronically workless are more likely to have been sacked, to have gone to prison and to be single parents. The qualitative part of the dataset, which is aimed at gauging people's attitudes, shows a common trend toward lack of motivation, lack of commitment to work and family, and general apathy. According to Mr Buckingham, "It's quite clear that these people lack vocational skills and that they lack cognitive ability. Their situation can be seen as being caused by these factors, but it's actually difficult to work out whether the causal factor is attitude or lack of skills."
Mr Buckingham's research also suggests that those in the 5.5% are less likely to sustain relationships. Around 50% of the men in this group hadn't had a relationship which had lasted for more than one month in the last ten years. Of the women, around 66% are single mothers.
With his emphasis on tough solutions, Alan Buckingham above all calls for realism when dealing with the problem. "I've been criticised for using the term 'underclass' because it has connotations to do with being lazy and feckless. I'm happy to give it a different name, but it doesn't matter what you label it, the group - and the problems they bring with them - still exists."
Note for editors: Frank Field's quote appeared in The New Statesman, 17 July 1997.
For further information please contact Sally Hall, Information Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or Alan Buckingham, School of Social Sciences, Sussex University, Tel. 01273 606755 ext 2395, email email@example.com